SAIRR Today: ANC sowing seeds for future revolt - 11th June 2010

Jun 11, 2010
The latest SAIRR Today is guest authored by Patrick Laurence. He assesses the ANC government's performance, and warns that continued corruption and slow economic growth will lay the foundations for future unrest.

President Jacob Zuma is steadily weighing himself down with what used to be described in the 1960s and 1970s as credibility gap, except that in his case it might be more accurately described as a credibility chasm. Having successfully used political leverage to have corruption charges against him withdrawn, he declared that he was innocent of them, forgetting that he was never acquitted of them in a court of law and that he and his lawyers did everything in their power to prevent the trial from taking place.

Mr Zuma declared that his administration had adopted a zero-tolerance policy on corruption but he has not taken action to give substance to his declaration, even though the media has been awash with reports of ANC notables using political connectivity to obtain preferential treatment from officials.

When Mr Zwelizima Vavi, the general secretary of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), drew attention to the dissonance between Mr Zuma’s rhetorical pronouncement and his passive acquiescence in corruption, the ANC’s national working committee, its highest decision making body, threatened to take disciplinary action against him in his capacity as an ANC member. Mr Vavi should be commended and not condemned for telling the ‘emperor’ that he is as naked as he was on the day that he was born.

Mr Zuma’s recent declaration that he was moved to tears by the plight of a family at the Sweetwaters informal settlement south of Johannesburg lacks credibility, as it implies that he was shocked to discover that people still lived in shanties in modern-day South Africa. As a seasoned politician Mr Zuma, who served as the ANC’s chief of intelligence during the final years of the armed struggle against the apartheid regime, cannot have been unaware that there are still a large number of desperately poor people in South Africa.

Perhaps Mr Zuma felt the need to dramatise what he saw in order to stress the urgency of the plight of the poor at his meeting the following day with the premiers from the nine provinces at the policy co-ordinating council in Pretoria and thereby stir them into urgent action to help the poor.

While substantial progress has been made by the ANC government, with some help from the private sector, in the provision of formal houses, demand for formal housing still outstrips supply, as is manifestly evident in the mushrooming of informal settlements around all the major cities and even adjacent to townships.

Figures published by the Institute showed the following breakdown. Some 71% of households lived in formal dwellings, while 14% lived in informal housing. Some 11% lived in traditional dwellings, usually huts. The remaining three percent of the population lived in dwellings such as caravans, hostels, or tents.

In so far as these figures give the impression that black citizens living in formal dwellings in the townships are content with their lot, that is decidedly not so: the residents in these areas appear to be more militant than those in informal settlements when it comes to protests against poor or even non-delivery of promised social services.

As Mr Sydney Mufamadi, the former minister of local government, has pointed out, two sociological processes help to explain why that is so:

  • Firstly, the rising expectations of those whose living stands are improving but not fast enough for their liking; and
  • Secondly, the sense of relative deprivation which communities may feel when they hear about communities whose progress to more comfortable lives is faster than theirs.

It most certainly does not help if the local municipal councillors are known to be, or suspected of being, corrupt, as was the case in Siyathemba in Mpumalanga to which Mr Zuma paid a surprise visit last year. Ditto if the local councillor drives around an informal settlement in a Hummer with a police escort while taking pot shots at the residents, as Councillor Freedom Sotshantsha is alleged to have done in Sweetwaters.

Figures published in the latest edition of the South Africa Survey reflects a steady decrease in the proportion of people living on less than US1$ a day. In 2002 some 5.8% of households were living on less than that measure, declining to 1.4 % in 2008.

These figures, however, do not take account of the negative impact on South Africa of the world financial crisis and the consequent loss of more than 1.1-million jobs during 2009 and the first quarter of 2010. The multiplier factor needs to be borne in mind, as the retrenchment of workers affects their families as well.

The proportion of people living on less than a dollar a day would certainly had been considerably higher if the Government had not increased the value of old age pension and social welfare grants generally.

Although the Government deserves commendation for increasing the value of social grants paid to poorer citizens, the praise needs to be qualified by two caveats.

Firstly, reliance on government handouts breeds a culture of dependency instead of one of self-reliance. Secondly, it places a heavy burden on the National Treasury, which is especially true in South Africa where the number of people dependent on grants for survival outnumbers the number of income taxpayers by close to 3:1. For government grants to the poor to be viable the ratio of recipients to taxpayers should be closer to 1:1. The ratio cannot continue to widen without economic and political repercussions.

A related problem, of course, is South Africa’s high rate of unemployment, officially calculated to be between 24 % and 34 % of the working-age population, depending whether it is narrow or wide unemployment. When unemployment is defined narrowly it includes only those people actively looking for employment. The wide definition of unemployment includes those who are unemployed but who, for specified reasons, are no longer actively looking for employment.

Even when the economy generated new employment opportunities between 2003 and 2008, it did not match the growth in the labour force.

There is another disturbing feature about South Africa’s political economy: income inequality within the African community is growing at an alarming rate, in contrast to the diminishing inequality in the white community. The Gini coefficient, a measure of inequality, increased from 0.54 to 0.61 among Africans, an increase of 12%. Conversely, the Gini coefficient in the white community decreased from 0.49 to 0.46, or by six percent. A Gini coefficient of zero shows that a society is perfectly equal with everyone having the same amount of wealth. A measure of one would conversely mean that all wealth in society was held by one person.

The growing number of protests against the failure by the ruling party to fulfil its promise of ‘A better life for all’ is fuelled in part by the burgeoning gap between the rich and poor within the African community.

If the Zuma administration does not take steps to remedy the situation, it may be sowing the proverbial ‘dragon’s teeth’ and condemning itself to fighting dragons in the near future.

- Patrick Laurence

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